This is a guest post from N.T. Wright (D.D., D.Phil., Oxford University). Wright is currently Research Professor of New Testament and Early Christianity at St Mary’s College, University of St Andrews in Scotland. You can see the whole series on A God-Centered Worldview here.
Why The Resurrection Matters
On Palm Sunday 1996 the London Sunday Times ran a feature about the tomb of Jesus, suggesting that a new discovery threatened the basis of Christianity. Two bbc producers went looking for fresh material for an Easter Sunday program. They wanted to stimulate discussion on the nature of the Resurrection. Supposing, they asked, someone actually found the bones of Jesus lying around in Palestine: What would that do to Christian faith?
So they looked for ossuaries—bone boxes. They found one inscribed “Jesus, son of Joseph” (actually, they found more than one, but they only followed up one). It had been found in a family tomb; and in the same family tomb were other boxes, labeled Joseph, Mary, another Mary, a Matthew, and someone called Judah, described as “the son of Jesus.” The boxes were empty: vandals had apparently got there first, possibly in antiquity. Now, journalists are good at putting two and two together and making seventeen. Could this be Jesus’ tomb? Would it cast doubt on the very foundations of Christianity?
The first thing to say is that, even if nobody had ever said Jesus of Nazareth had been raised to life, the probability is still enormously high that this would not have been the tomb of the Jesus, Mary, and Joseph we know from the Gospels. “Mary” is by far the most common female name in the period; “Joseph” and “Jesus” are two of the most common male names, with Judah—or Judas—not far behind.
Discovering a tomb with these names in one family is rather like an archaeologist two thousand years hence finding an English tomb with parents called Philip and Elizabeth and children called Charles and Anne, and claiming that this must be the British royal family. The Israeli archaeologists, none of them interested in defending Christianity, were the first to pooh-pooh the idea of this being the tomb of Jesus of Nazareth.
Second, if it had been the tomb of Jesus and his family, there are serious oddities. Why is it in Jerusalem, when the family lived in Nazareth where, presumably, Joseph had died some time before Jesus’ public ministry? Why is there no mention of James, Jesus’ most famous brother, or of Joses and Simon (as listed in Mark 6:3, along with some unnamed sisters)? And why is there a son of Jesus? There is no evidence whatever that Jesus had children, whether in or out of wedlock; his family—that is, his brothers and nephews—were well known in the early church. Sixty years after Jesus’ death, his grandnephews were accused by the Roman emperor Domitian of being part of a would-be royal family. If Jesus had had a son, people would have known. It would have mattered.
But the most serious problem is yet to come, and this points forward to the real message of Easter: Bone boxes—ossuaries—were used in the second stage of a two-stage burial process. Many first-century Jews were buried this way. First they were laid on a slab, wrapped in cloth with spices. The tomb was a cave, not a hole in the ground. It would have a movable stone door; the family and friends would in due course lay other bodies on other shelves in the same cave. Then, a year or more later, when all the flesh had decomposed, relatives or friends would return to collect the bones and place them in an ossuary, a box roughly two feet by one foot by one foot, which would then be stored away either in recesses within the same cave or somewhere else. In other words, the burial of Jesus as recorded in the Gospels was only the first stage of an intended two-stage burial.
So, did anyone ever think of going back to the tomb to collect Jesus’ bones and put them in an ossuary? No, they didn’t! The whole early church knew that Jesus’ body wasn’t in the tomb. They believed that God had raised Jesus to life again, transforming his body in the process. This wasn’t a resuscitation, a journey back into the present life; it was a resurrection, a going on through death and out the other side into a new mode of physicality, the beginning of God’s new creation.
If the disciples had believed that what they called the “resurrection” was just a “spiritual” event, leaving the body in the tomb, someone sooner or later would have had to go back to collect Jesus’ bones and store them properly. The tomb was designed, like most such tombs of the period, as a family tomb. As additional family members died, the relatives would in due course have come again with their bodies, to lay them elsewhere in the tomb. The ledge where Jesus had been laid would be needed again. But of course, if anyone had at any stage gone back to tidy up Jesus’ bones and put them in an ossuary, that would indeed have destroyed Christianity before it had even properly begun. Even those contemporary scholars who deny that Jesus was raised bodily from the dead are clear that all the early Christians thought he had been, and that they made it the basis of their whole lives.
So the question of the ossuaries, when we explore it thoroughly, provides paradoxically a sort of negative evidence in favor of Jesus’ resurrection. Not only is the tomb the journalists highlighted not Jesus’ tomb. By drawing attention to the two-stage burial process, they have reminded us of how impossible it is to imagine Christianity getting off the ground at all if the second stage of the burial process had ever been carried out. Make no bones about it. In their eagerness to find news, the journalists have accidentally highlighted the good news.
What Easter Faith Means
Someone on a radio show in Holy Week, after the original Sunday Times article, declared that it didn’t matter if Jesus’ bones were still lying around Palestine somewhere. “I expect to go to heaven when I die,” he said, “and I won’t be taking my bones with me; so I don’t see why Jesus shouldn’t have done the same.”
I suspect that this idea, or something like it, is quite widespread, and it’s worth pointing out the mistake. Belief in Jesus’ resurrection is not the belief that Jesus has simply “gone to heaven” after his death, as though Jesus were like a great saint or martyr whom God has received into his presence with honor. Jews believed that about all sorts of people; it wouldn’t have been new; it wouldn’t have been news.
Easter faith always was the belief that Jesus went through death into a new sort of bodily existence in which his original body was transformed into a body with new characteristics and properties. When Paul, the first Christian to write about the resurrection, draws conclusions from Jesus’ resurrection about our future resurrection, he says that those who are still alive at the end of time will have their bodies changed. He talks about seeds and plants, about acorns and oaks. Our bodies won’t be abandoned; they will be transformed.
So what was the Resurrection all about, as far as the early Christians were concerned? And what on earth—and I mean on earth—does it mean for the world and the church at the end of the twentieth century?
The early Christians very quickly came to understand what had happened to Jesus in terms of the old Jewish, biblical belief that the living God was one day going to solve the problem of Israel’s exile and oppression. By doing so, God was going to solve the problem of evil and injustice in the whole world. That is what it means to say that the Resurrection took place “according to the scriptures”: it was the fulfillment of prophetic promises and long-cherished hopes. Putting it succinctly, the Resurrection demonstrated that the Cross was a victory, not a defeat.
As Paul says, if Christ is not raised, your faith is futile, and you are still in your sins (1 Cor. 15:17). But if Christ has been raised, then this shows that on the cross he defeated death, and hence sin, and hence all evil and injustice, once and for all. Easter is the unveiling of God’s answer to the problems of the world. The message of the Resurrection is that this present world matters.
The early Christian belief in the resurrection of Jesus was a belief about something that actually happened within this real world, not simply a belief about a transcendent dimension, a spiritual or otherworldly reality that leaves this world behind. Likewise, the continuing message of the Resurrection is precisely not that “there is a life after death.” There is life after death, and all God’s people will inherit it; but the point is that it won’t be what most modern Westerners think of as “life after death.” It will involve God’s people being given new bodies, like Jesus’ body, to share in the new heavens and new earth that God will make.
Why Easter Matters
The message of the Resurrection is that this present world matters; that the problems and pains of this present world matter; that the living God has made a decisive bridgehead into this present world with his healing and all-conquering love; and that, in the name of this strong love, all the evils, all the injustices, and all the pains of the present world must now be addressed with the news that healing, justice, and love have won the day. That’s why we pray: “Thy kingdom come, on earth as it is in heaven.” Make no bones about it: Easter Day was the first great answer to that prayer.
If Easter faith is simply about believing that God has a nice comfortable afterlife for some or all of us, then Christianity becomes a mere pie-in-the-sky religion instead of a kingdom-on-earth-as-it-is-in-heaven religion. If Easter faith is simply about believing that Jesus is risen in some “spiritual” sense, leaving his body in the tomb, then Christianity turns into a let-the-world-stew-in-its-own-juice religion, instead of a kingdom-on-earth-as-it-is-in-heaven religion. If Easter faith is only about me, and perhaps you, finding a new dimension to our own personal spiritual lives in the here and now, then Christianity becomes simply a warmth-in-the-heart religion instead of a kingdom-on-earth-as-it-is-in-heaven religion. It becomes focused on me and my survival, my sense of God, my spirituality, rather than outwards on God and on God’s world that still needs the kingdom message so badly.
But if Jesus Christ is truly risen from the dead, Christianity becomes what the New Testament insists that it is: good news for the whole world, news that warms our hearts precisely because it isn’t just about warming hearts. The living God has in principle dealt with evil once and for all, and is now at work, by his own Spirit, to do for us and the whole world what he did for Jesus on that first Easter Day.
That is why we who celebrate Easter do so with material things: water in baptism and bread and wine at the Lord’s Supper. Easter is about the living God claiming the world of space, time, and matter as his own. That is why Christians celebrate it with candles and flowers and incense and processions and banners and, above all, music: the world of creation has been reclaimed by the living and healing God. That is why we who celebrate Easter after a Lenten fast do so not with a guilty sense of going back to things that are tainted with sin, but with the joyful sense of celebrating the goodness of God’s good creation in all its rich variety.
How We Celebrate Easter
The celebration of Easter calls us, one and all, to delight in God’s way of holiness: not a negative, gloomy holiness, but a positive giving of ourselves to God in the knowledge that his way is the way of true delight, of true fulfillment. And that is why the celebration of Easter, in a world, a country, and a region where injustice, violence, degradation, and all manner of wickedness are still endemic, makes the most powerful symbolic statement that we are not prepared to tolerate such things—that God is not prepared to tolerate such things—and that we will work, and plan, and pray, and vote with all the energy of God to implement the victory of Jesus over them all. True Easter faith, true Easter celebration, and true Easter holiness must issue in true Easter agendas.
Recall the old jibe of Karl Marx and others, that Christianity lulls people into being content with their lot or content to look on other people’s misery and injustice because it speaks only about a spiritualized heaven in the future and a spiritual experience here and now. That jibe is a fair critique of a watered-down Christianity that tries to say that Jesus’ body, like John Brown’s, stayed amouldering in the grave while his soul went marching on. But it misses entirely the point of the true Christian belief in the Resurrection.
Notice how, in the Gospels, all the first witnesses of the Resurrection run. Half the references in the Gospels to people running occur in the Resurrection stories: the women run from the tomb, Peter and John run to the tomb, the disciples in Emmaus hurry back to Jerusalem. Where is that energy in the church today, a God-given energy that can’t wait to get the good news out and to implement it in the world? If it is lacking, could it have something to do with the fact that far too many Christians have been lulled into thinking that God isn’t really concerned with this world, so that the Resurrection of Jesus is not about something happening within this world, so that the only thing that matters is my private otherworldly salvation?
The bodily resurrection of Jesus isn’t a take-it-or-leave-it thing, as though some Christians are welcome to believe it and others are welcome not to believe it. Take it away, and the whole picture is totally different. Take it away, and Karl Marx was probably right to accuse Christianity of ignoring the problems of the material world. Take it away, and Sigmund Freud was probably right to say that Christianity is a wish-fulfillment religion. Take it away, and Friedrich Nietzsche was probably right to say that Christianity is a religion for wimps. Put it back, and you have a faith that can take on the postmodern world that looks to Marx, Freud, and Nietzsche as its prophets; you can beat them at their own game with the Easter news that the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.
Those who celebrate the mighty resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ, therefore, have an awesome and nonnegotiable responsibility. When we say “Alleluia! Christ is risen,” we are saying that Jesus is Lord of the world, and that the present would-be lords of the world are not. When we sing, in the old hymn, that “Judah’s Lion burst his chains and crushed the serpent’s head,” are we ready to put that victory into practice? Are we ready to speak up for, and to take action on behalf of, those even in our own local community, let alone farther afield, who are quietly being crushed by uncaring and unjust systems? Are we ready to speak up for the truth of the gospel over the dinner table and in the coffee bar, and in the council chamber?
Let’s make no bones about it: If Easter isn’t good news, then there is no good news. But if it is—if it is true that Jesus Christ is risen indeed—then Easter Day, and the Easter message, is the true sun which, when it rises, puts all other suns to shame.
This article is adapted from For All God’s Worth: True Worship and the Calling of the Church and is used by permission of the author.